NIGERIA: EiE @ 12: On Debates & Democracy

Muhammadu Buhari


“We must begin to imbibe a culture by which those who aspire to lead our people are subjected to a rigorous process of public debates that will assess their suitability on objective criteria, rather than the religion they practise or where they come from.”

– Olusegun Adeniyi, Chairman, ThisDay Editorial Board

In 2010, we protested to the National Assembly in Abuja and to then Governor Babatunde Fashola’s office in Lagos, asking if Mr President was dead or alive in Saudi Arabia; demanding that the killings in Jos be stopped and wondering why an oil-producing nation had fuel queues. 12 years later, Mr President is alive but he’s in London for a medical check up; killings are not only in Jos but in several hotspots across the country and yes, there are still fuel queues.

Twelve years. 12 years. Has nothing really changed? Is enough not yet enough?

Well, we’re still lying to ourselves about fuel subsidy; Mr President shows a lack of capacity to lead the world’s largest black nation and insecurity has fully become an enterprise. However, citizens have become more aware, more restless, and more courageous. Certainly not Uhuru, but it’s becoming clearer by the day that the status quo is not sustainable. As my dear friend, Aisha Yesufu says, “Tomorrow’s victims are today’s survivors; today’s victims were yesterday’s survivors.”

So, back to 2010. After the protests, we spent time discussing what next, and since elections were the next year, we decided to focus on getting as many young people as possible to participate in the process. We adapted the popular RSVP from ‘Rice and Stew Very Plenty’ to Register | Select | Vote | Protect. The original meaning of the acronym is ‘Respondez s’il vous plait’, which is a formal request to respond if you will attend an event. For us, we were asking young people to RSVP for the 2011 elections – signifying that they will register to vote; select credible candidates; vote and protect their votes. The ‘V’ later became ‘Vote not fight’ when we partnered with the 2Baba Foundation which runs the ‘Vote not fight’ campaign advocating against election violence. 2Baba is also a major supporter of EiE’s work. RSVP is now the longest-running get-out-the-vote campaign in Nigeria.

Elections were in April 2011 and for idealistic young people who saw democracy and elections in the United States as a model, hosting a presidential debate was a no-brainer! As such, the What About Us? Presidential Debate was organized as Nigeria’s first youth-focused debate and we co-hosted it with Sleeves Up, Stand Up Naija (NLI), and Vote or Quench; with media support from Channels TV. It was moderated by Chimamanda Adichie and Ebuka Obi-Uchendu was the master of ceremony.

This would begin EiE’s journey with debates as the core component of our work in educating voters to select credible candidates – the ’S’ in RSVP. Over the last decade, we have hosted or co-hosted twenty-five debates of different formats – presidential, governorship, local government chairmanship, youth members of political parties and town hall meetings for legislators. I believe EiE has hosted / co-hosted more debates than any other civil society organization in Nigeria working with Channels TV, TVC News, Arise TV, several radio stations, state television stations and online platforms.

We have innovated with language and accessibility as we continue to work to mainstream debates. During #AnambraDecides2017, in partnership with Channels TV and the Anambra State Broadcasting Service (TV & radio), Anambrarians could either watch the debate in English or a voice-over dub in Igbo. This would be repeated in Yoruba for #OsunDecides2018 in partnership with TVC News, Rave FM & Adaba FM. In 2019, we made history when the Peoples Debate {Presidential debate} was the first TV program broadcasted as a live radio simulcast in partnership with the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN). The radio simulcast was a live broadcast in five languages – English, Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo & Pidgin; also the first time this would happen in Nigeria’s history.

Debates are an integral part of a democratic system – either as part of a political campaign or engagements between citizens who have different opinions. In the political context, debates provide a platform where citizens can listen to the candidates, ask questions and make informed choices on who they will elect to govern them. It shapes campaigns and prepares serious candidates for governance. In some cases, debates can help reduce political tensions as the optics of the hug or handshake before and after the debate should communicate to supporters that we can disagree without being disagreeable. It also provides an opportunity for the candidates to commit to peaceful elections and encourage their supporters to follow the process. The power of debates to promote accountability hasn’t been used effectively. During a debate, a candidate’s statements, policy positions and campaign promises become public record that civic groups and the media should use to hold them accountable. EiE believes in the intrinsic value of debates as a mechanism to deepen democratic ideas and we are committed to hosting / co-hosting as many as we can to further that objective.

March 16, 2022 was the 12th anniversary of the historic Enough is Enough Nigeria protest to the National Assembly. To commemorate it, we’ll host a symposium titled On Debates & Democracy at the Yar’Adua Center in Abuja. The Yar’Adua Center was the venue of the What About Us? 2011 Presidential Debate so it is significant. The keynote address will be given by Janet Brown, the Executive Director of the Commission on Presidential Debates. This is the body that hosts all presidential debates in the US. The media panel will have the four debate moderators that we’ve worked with over the last decade – Maupe Ogun-Yusuf, Ngozi Alaegbu, Reuben Abati, and Seun Okinbaloye – in conversation with Segun Adeniyi. We will also have the debate panel with Abdulfatai Buhari (invited), Babatunde Fashola, Mahmood Yakubu, Mercy Tosin Ayodele and I.

Mr Fashola’s role is particularly important as it is a classic case study of the power of debates. He’s easily the “most debated” politician in Nigeria’s history. He went from an ‘unknown’ Chief of Staff to a candidate to be reckoned with the more he participated in debates and Lagosians got to experience his understanding of Lagos and his plans. Unfortunately, most candidates are not like him and they shy away from debates, preferring unidirectional rallies where their views and promises can not be challenged.

Mercy Ayodele is a model for the neutrality of our process. As a woman, I am often accused of not giving female candidates an opportunity to participate in our debates to give them visibility. We have a clear process of selecting candidates using qualitative and quantitative parameters. For the 2018 Osun Gubernatorial debate, Mercy Ayodele was seventh on the list after our analysis and we had space for five candidates. The PDP and SDP candidates declined to participate and she got a slot on stage and held her own. It wasn’t tokenism; she was assessed as the other candidates and competed on her own merit.

Debates are increasingly seen as a benchmark of a healthy democracy. We have seen shifts over the last decade and more citizens are interested in listening to candidates debate. #AnambraDecides2021 that we co-hosted with Arise TV is the most recent example of the conversation and analysis generated from the top candidates challenging each other’s ideas and statements. We will continue to host / co-host debates that are accessible in multiple languages and channels using radio as an alternative to television.

Save the date and join us in-person or online {} as we have a conversation to explore how political debates contribute to democracy via citizens’ engagement; legislature (should debates be mandatory); the media and the role of political parties.

“Deliberation and debate is the way you stir the soul of our democracy.”

– Jesse Jackson, African-American Political Activist and Presidential Aspirant

‘Yemi Adamolekun is the Executive Director of Enough is Enough Nigeria (EiE Nigeria). She has an MSc in Development Studies from the London School of Economics (LSE) and an MBA from Oxford University’s Said Business School.